Are international school students Indonesian enough?

Danau Tanu, Perth | Opinion | Tue, July 15 2014, 10:38 AM

seen as foreign to Indonesia. The Indonesian children who attend these international schools are often accused of being kebarat-baratan, or “too Westernized” — in other words, not Indonesian enough.

But inside the gated campuses, deciding who is foreign and who is Indonesian is not so simple.

Take a typical scene from my research on international schools and their alumni: At one high school, as students flooded out of the classrooms at recess you could hear a Russian and French teenager speaking fluent Jakarta slang to their Indonesian classmates.

The next minute a Taiwanese teenager was speaking English, Mandarin and Indonesian in one sentence. Some of these students were seen as Indonesian despite their background.

There was a large clique among the senior students whom everyone labeled “Indonesian”, or “Indo” for short. But the so-called “Indonesian” group consisted of Javanese, Balinese, Chinese and Indian students, as well as children with mixed parentage

There were also Korean, Filipino and Taiwanese nationals who were fluent or semi-fluent in Indonesian and called Indonesia home.

Regardless of what was officially printed on their passports, there were many students who espoused a sense of Indonesian nationalism. These nationalisms came in different forms.

Dae Sik (all students’ names are pseudonyms), a male student, had an antagonistic sense of nationalism. “This is my country, so the bule [white foreigners] shouldn’t mess with our country,” he said, while perched precariously on the back of a bench. Dae Sik was talking about Indonesia. He grew up in Indonesia, but he was technically South Korean.

“But, aren’t you Korean?” I asked. “Of course,” he responded, “it’s in the blood.” As far as Dae Sik was concerned, there was nothing inconsistent about being both Indonesian and Korean.

Dae Sik spoke fluent Indonesian, English and Korean. But even though he was officially Korean according to his passport, he always hung out in the “Indonesian” group because he could not relate to the Koreans anymore. “Nggak nyambung [can’t connect],” he said of his Korean peers.

One time Dae Sik and a few of his friends took drastic measures to prove their nationalism toward Indonesia. According to a fellow student, Dae Sik and his friends were at a nightclub when they took offense at something that a male American classmate had said to their female Indonesian friend.

So later they hired some bodyguards and visited their American classmate at his family’s home to intimidate him.

Dae Sik strived to show himself worthy of calling Indonesia home by taking an antagonistic stance toward his more foreign-looking Western peers. His friend, Shane, agreed. Shane said of their Western peers: “They walk around like they own the place. So we put them in their place. It’s my country. This is my home.”

Ironically, Shane’s father is British, though his mother is Indonesian.

Others were skeptical of Dae Sik and Shane’s nationalism. Anaya, an ethnically Indian girl with a Spanish passport who grew up in Indonesia, said, “It’s a show they put up. They don’t really have anything to be angry about because they have everything that they want.” According to Anaya, putting on a nationalistic show gave these wealthy boys a sense of “power”.

In contrast, Jason expressed his sense of nationalism by exercising his right to vote as an Indonesian citizen. He had turned 17 (the legal voting age) just a few weeks before the 2009 presidential election. Jason was eager to vote.

“I was always looking at the news and everything about the election to see who would make a good leader and I based it on that. I am sort of a nationalist,” he claimed. His parents did not bother to vote that year, so Jason went by himself to the polls for the first time.

Jason had a more accommodating stance toward his Western peers. Even though he did not feel as though he could relate to them as well as he could his friends in the “Indonesian” group, he said that he and his friends would often invite Western students to parties.

“We don’t like to make it exclusive or anything, it doesn’t feel right,” he explained. If fights break out between boys, Jason reckoned they are isolated incidents triggered by one or two who happened to be arrogant and fueled by teenage angst.

Rajesh was also accommodating of differences. Rajesh is an Indian national who grew up in Indonesia, is fluent in Indonesian and likes to listen to Indonesian pop music.

He was aware that some of his fellow foreign students were well acculturated in Indonesia like himself, while others showed a lack of interest in the country.

But instead of focusing on these divisions, Rajesh chose to serve his community by running for student council president. Rajesh won the election because he was well liked and could talk to both Indonesians and foreigners with ease. Rajesh also knew how to get things done to improve student life.

Whether or not international school students are Indonesian enough depends on how we define what it means to be Indonesian: Is it about the name of the country printed on legal documents like passports, or is it about how you treat the country itself?

Is it about making a performance of nationalism like Dae Sik and Shane, or is it about taking responsibility for the future of the country and of the immediate community, like Jason and Rajesh?

These are questions that lack straightforward answers. But perhaps the important question is not whether international school students are Indonesian enough, but why we are asking these questions to begin with. After all, identities are complex.
Regardless of their passports, there were many students who espoused a sense of Indonesian nationalism.

The writer completed a PhD in Anthropology and Asian studies at the University of Western Australia on “third culture kids” and international education